A Rocky Mountaineer Experience

In most travels, it’s the destination, not the journey. Getting there is not half the fun. Sitting in a cramped seat for eight or more hours is a means to an end. Even if you have seen many of the world’s great cities and wonders, the memories of the actual trips to those wonderful places often are bad ones — flight delays, cancellations.

Rocky Mountaineer is different. The Canadian train trip from Vancouver to Jasper is the attraction. Of course, the two-day ride wouldn’t be the same without the Rocky Mountains, but the railroad experience is the reason for going to Canada.

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations railroad starts its 21st year this spring and offers a variety of daylight trips ranging from a three-hour ride from Vancouver to Whistler, in British Columbia, to a 16-day trip cross-country from Vancouver to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The five routes in between all feature the spectacular Rockies.

The dilemma is picking a route. How do you choose between Jasper and Banff? What about the side trip to Lake Louise and a helicopter view of the mountains? You also can end your trip in Calgary. There are no bad options.

Time dictated the Journey Through the Clouds, a two-day trip from Vancouver, a pretty good destination itself, to Jasper, with an overnight stop in Kamloops, British Columbia. It was is a perfect fit. Anything longer might have be too much, and anything shorter, too little.

A Travelers Experience of Rocky Mountaineer:

We arrived at the Mountaineer terminal, a rehabbed former Canadian National Railroad station, in the dark at 6:30 a.m. The terminal is airy with many large windows. My wife and I were filled with anticipation as we stood in line, waiting for our seat assignment.

We were given two seats in the middle of the last car on the 24-car train — always wanted to ride in a caboose. The seats were individual, adjustable and quite comfortable, though not plush. With 40 passengers, all adults, in the 66-capacity car, we had plenty of room.

The first day got off to a slow start. We pulled out of the station as Mountaineer employees waved goodbye, and the train crawled through Vancouver. Once we hit the open rails, we saw a variety of the British Columbia landscape ranging from Fraser Valley farmland to the Cascade Mountains. The route hugs the banks of the Fraser River, providing numerous photo opportunities, including Hell’s Gate, where 200 million gallons of water rush through the narrowest part of the river each minute.

The ride was leisurely, less than 50 miles per hour at top speed and slowing for photo ops, such as the spectacular Pyramid Falls we crept past on the second day. This waterfall, actually two streams that flow together, can be seen only from the train. There is no road running past it and no hiking trail. The Rocky Mountaineer gives you a unique view of the Canadian countryside.

Providing commentary and excellent service in our car was Rocky Mountaineer attendant Cameron, who also served meals and snacks. Overall the food was good (ham sandwiches, salmon, fresh fruit, for example); one breakfast was just OK. The service couldn’t have been better, with Cameron providing coffee, tea, juice and pop. As for the sights, there were few instances when a dome view was missed.

“With the great service we’ve had, I can’t imagine what the Gold Leaf service is like,” said a retired teacher from England.

Interestingly, the Rocky Mountaineer draws travelers from all over the world, not just North America. Most of the estimated 90,000 riders in 2009 weren’t Americans. “We have an international clientele, as a rule,” Cameron said. “We have passengers from the United States, England, Australia and Germany on this trip.”

After eight hours in the train, we arrived at Kamloops, a city of 90,000 people. Its dry climate features mild winters and hot summers. As we pulled into the station, we were greeted by three members of the Kamloops Mounted Patrol on coal-black horses, waving us home. We spent the night in a small but clean motel, resting up for the big finish.

In the morning, half of our train broke off for Banff while we continued on to Jasper. There were no horsemen at the station when we boarded, but the next eight hours more than made up for it. We followed the clear, energetic Thompson River with mountains on both sides. It was the beginning of the climb to the sky.

The thrills were in ascending order, one jaw-dropping mountain after another in the afternoon. Three hours from Jasper we entered the Premier Range, named for Canada’s prime ministers.

It is said to be the most impressive group of mountains in Canada. No argument here.

Mount Robson, the tallest at more than 12,000 feet with snow dotting the peak, is quite a sight. You can only imagine what it looks like in the Gold Leaf car.

Although Mount Robson was the visual highlight, the final two hours of the trip didn’t lack for excitement. The very deep Moose Lake, an eerie green because of glacial particles; impressive Thunder Falls; Yellowhead Pass on the Continental Divide; and the two-toned Mount Fitzwilliam keep you from taking a nap before you step off the train at Jasper National Park.

And the ride was just as spectacular.